Discover the Black Sea highlands in September when time is suddenly rent by a blanket of fog or the cry of a vulture, and make the acquaintance of nature in its most beautiful aspect.
Our gateway to the Black Sea highlands is Maçka, Trabzon province’s emerald forested township. Bisected by the waters of the Coşandere, which point to the Sumela Monastery, this township offers a surprise at every step, from the highlands themselves with their mysterious medieval monasteries to rousing folk festivals and traditional local dishes. The road into the mountains becomes more and more beautiful as one approaches the Zigana Valley; on it is the village of Hamsiköy, famous for its rice pudding. Scattered like emeralds throughout the Maçka Highlands are mountains and lakes with names like Uzungöl, Şolma, Lişer, Lake Sera, Mavura, Kiraz, Lapazan, Çakirgöl, Çatma Oba, Düzköy, Karadağ, Hidirnebi, Kuruçam and Sis Daği.
The route through Torul, Gümüşhane and Yayladere leads to the Black Sea’s hidden treasures. Along it, the valley of the Yağmurdere, reached via Salmankeş Pass, is the area’s highest point. The town of Dumanli on the banks of the Yanbolu River was once the center of seven ‘Rum’ (Anatolian Greek) villages by the name of Santa. Traditional specialties such as corn soup, ‘kuymak’ or ‘mihlama’ (a dish made with cheese, butter and corn flour), ‘kaygana’ omelette with anchovies, sauteed pickles, stuffed cabbage leaves, ‘minci’ cheese, and the blackberry syrup known as ‘fikoki’ will endear the region to you and your stomach! And you can add an extra dimension to your tour by extending it to Trabzon’s next-door neighbor Giresun with its natural-wonder highlands, the most popular of which is Kümbet. Meanwhile the Karagöl Highland in the township of Dereli is known for its four tiny mountain lakes. And Melikli ‘Oba’ (a nomadic campground) and the Kulakkaya Highland are only 50 kilometers from the city center.
TEA, TURKISH TOWELS AND CARVED WOODEN LECTERNS
Our road stretches now to Rize, the city for which the Black Sea highlands are known. Starting from the banks of the İyidere, it runs through endless corn fields and tea plantations to the valley of the İkizdere. Along it the town of Güneyce boasts 150-year-old wooden mosques carved like fine lace out of the wood of the chestnut tree. İkizdere, which gives it name to the valley, burbles merrily at the confluence of the Köhçer and Cimil rivers. Besides Manle Waterfall and Vane Thermal Springs, this township also has a thriving market. Hand-woven ‘keşan’ textiles decorated with claret-red patterns that the women tie around their heads, natural-dyed Turkish towels, thick woolen socks, country cheeses, tea, and wooden lecterns and butter churns are among its most popular wares. Besides Anzer Highland, famous for its honey, other highlands here include Çamlik, Puşula, Gölyayla, Cimil, Çiçekli, Mahura, Yatak, Buzluğan, Kaban and Vaşa. It’s a good idea to make Çamlik Highland, which offers accommodation, food and guide services, your headquarters for a tour of the region. The summit known as Ovit, one of Turkey’s two highest mountain passes at 2,600 meters, is crowned with a glacier lake known as Aygir.
ON THE ROAD TO MAKREVIS
The road to Çamlihemşin winds through some spectacular vegetation. Formed by the Firtina River, Hemşin Basin is one of the places on the Black Sea where you can best get a sense of the steep terrain incised by river valleys. Encircled by the highest Black Sea peaks, the basin is home to some fifty highlands and more than seventy mountain villages.
The region’s pattern of settlement is one of isolated villages scattered on steep, misty slopes, with some villages consisting of only a handful of dwellings. But the real surprise at Çamlihemşin is the quarter known as Makrevis (Mansions), which boasts some of the Black Sea’s most ostentatious houses. The newest of some twenty such structures, built on a sheer mountain slope blanketed by forest and fog, is 130 years old. Adorned with ceramic stoves, rare glasswares and antiques, the interiors of these houses present a flawless synthesis of cut stone and wood, reflecting the taste of the valley dwellers. Continuing our journey through the clouds, our route takes us to Çatköy and Verçenik. With its arched stone bridges, rustic restaurants, mysterious monasteries and tiny telefriques ferrying food to the residents, this verdant valley climbs into the heart of the Kaçkars.
NEAREST THE STARS
Rising out of a wild canyon in the depths of the Firtina valley, Zilkale presents a romantic and mysterious image. At the same time it is the gateway to Kaçkar Mountain National Park. Spread over 51,550 hectares, this nature park is a touristic haven in its own right with around 2,300 living species, including some 550 endemic species and over 230 species of birds. The upper reaches of the mountain road, which gets gradually steeper towards the Kaçkars, give way to dense pine forests, broad meadows and wild flowers.
Forking at Çatköy in the foothills of Mount Tatos (Dilek), it continues on to the Elevit, Trovit, Palovit, Amlakit, Kavron, Hazindağ and Samistal highlands, while the right fork extends to the Hisarcik. Çiçekli, Orta, Baş and Hacivanak highlands. With its bird’s-eye view of the Firtina Valley from the slopes of Çatköy, Kito Highland is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Lake Balikli at Kito, with its dozens of natural springs and velvet-eyed gazelles, has no new construction apart from the traditional mountain dwellings. This wild highland, nestled in cotton candy clouds, will transport you to another world…
UNDER A GREEN UMBRELLA
Any Eastern Black Sea tour that omits Artvin is not worth its weight in salt. Snuggled in the pristine natural setting of the Kaçkar Mountains, Artvin is the Eastern Black Sea’s most remote and surprise-filled corner with its folk festivals, Georgian churches and opportunities for nature sports. Dubbed the ‘green umbrella’, the Kafkasör highland is famous for its bull fighting. Resting on the back of Kafkasör, the slopes of Mount Genya harbor mountain roads with unsurpassed trails for off-road buffs where your adrenal level will peak as you proceed along the precipices.
To the east of the mountain, Hatila valley boasts Artvin’s largest national park. And the section of the Çoruh River between Yusufeli and İspir, an an area promising rich opportunities for mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking and jeep safaris, is regarded as one of the world’s finest rafting courses.
The gentle breeze that blows up at evening in the Eastern Black Sea highlands brings with it, as always, the ardent melodies of the local folk dance known as the ‘horon’. Calling all travelers to the Black Sea, the strains of fiddle and drum turn into a musical feast in the hands of the passionate highlanders.
BEFORE SETTING OUT
Be prepared for extensive hiking on an Eastern Black Sea tour. Considering that you’ll be taking long walks through the countryside, your best bet is a poncho, a comfortable pair of pants and a pair of waterproof boots that will also protect your ankles against sprains. For your own safety, it is very important that you are accompanied by either a professional guide or someone who knows the area well. It’s also a good idea to take along some cold, stomach upset and cut and wound remedies, as well as a first aid kit.
‘SEPTEMBER IS THE BLACK SEA’S BEST SEASON’
As one who has led tours professionally in the area for over 20 years, I can say that September is the best season for the Black Sea highlands. The region is something else in September, when all the colors of nature deepen and it’s quieter after the summer crowds have dissipated. The valleys of the İkizdere and the Hemşin, Rize’s green paradises, boast innumerable trails. One should definitely see one or more of the Hazindağ, Hevek, Pokut, Samistal, Kotençur, Hacivanak and Kito highlands. For trekking enthusiasts, I can recommend Hazindağ-Pokut, Sal-Samistal and Zilkale-Kito as the three best routes. Those in condition can pay a visit to the Kavron, Çaymakçur, Polakçur and Huser highlands, Rize’s as yet undiscovered glories. Çamlikaya near İspir in the Artvin section of the Kaçkars boasts some of the finest examples of the area’s unique stone masonry.
(Bülent Saraloğlu, professional guide)